Touch Not the Fish: The Mesolithic-Neolithic Change of Diet and Its Significance

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Against the grain? A response to Milner et al. (2004)


A recent publication in this journal (Milner et al. 2004) called into question the increasing body of human stable isotopic data showing a rapid diet shift away from marine resources associated with the beginning of the Neolithic in parts of north-western Europe, particularly in Britain and Denmark. While we very much welcome informed and positive debate on this issue, we feel we must respond to this specific paper as it is problematic at a number of levels.

Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of human bone is beginning to challenge what we would argue is the current orthodoxy of a gradual dietary transition between the Mesolithic and Neolithic. Indeed, the stable isotope data support some elements of a previous orthodoxy, which saw the advent of the Neolithic as a 'revolution'. This is not to say that all elements are supported by the isotopic data; the question of the interactions between any incomers and indigenous people, for example, is still very much a live issue. And it is still far from clear exactly how the shift occurred, how rapid it was in human terms (in generations rather than radiocarbon years), and why it occurred. And there is still the possibility of regional and supra-regional variation to be addressed fully. But the implications of the stable isotope data are beginning to be acknowledged and addressed (e.g. Thomas 2003). This is an important independent line of evidence, and has been available since the early 1980s (Tauber 1981a), yet until recently little consideration has been given to the picture of a very rapid and significant shift in diet across the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. Instead, it is during this very period that the view of the transition as a long, drawn-out process began to emerge and dominate discussion (Thomas 1991).

It is in this context that criticisms made of the isotopic data, particularly by Milner et al. (2004) need to be addressed. Their dismissal of the isotopic evidence for a rapid and significant transition, while to some extent encouraging debate, also prematurely attempts to close it. Milner et al. (2004) present their critique along three main fronts (see also Bailey & Milner 2002). Firstly, they contend that the zooarchaeological and archaeological evidence for diet is at odds with the stable isotope data; secondly, they point to problems of sample size and bias in the human skeletons used for analysis; and thirdly, they argue that there are problems with the interpretation of stable isotope data. We address each of these concerns in turn.

The (zoo)archaeological data

Milner et al. (2004) make much of the zooarchaeological evidence for the continued use of marine resources in the Neolithic, taking examples mainly from Denmark but also from Britain and Ireland. They argue that the presence of the remains of marine foods (especially shellfish) in Neolithic contexts, and the occurrence of apparent seal-hunting stations and of fish traps, somehow counters any argument of a large-scale dietary shift at the start of the Neolithic. Despite the numerous problems and biases with the use of zooarchaeological data, they present this evidence as if it were some sort of 'spoiler'; that finding any evidence, however slight, of any Neolithic person consuming marine foods undermines the isotopic data of a large scale shift. Simply put, the continued occasional use of marine resources in the Neolithic is not at all incompatible with the isotope data, but is largely irrelevant in the overall question of large-scale dietary shifts. The isotopic evidence presents a long-term measure of lifetime diets, and clearly shows a significant change in human diet between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic. Remains of fish and shellfish recovered from archaeological sites are the remains of individual meals, but are not indicative of the overall diet of a human population. …